Gone are the days of having 700+ pounds of beef in the middle of the defense. Kris Jenkins is a Jet. Maake Kemoeatu is a Redskin. As John Fox loves to say, “no one is coming to save us,” or “we have who we have.”
Last season, the Panthers finished with their poorest ranking in total rushing yards allowed during the John Fox era (22nd). That has to be something the coaching staff is aware of, and perhaps concerned about. Fox’s press conference when first joining the Panthers in 2002 was highlighted by his proclamation that “you have to be able to run the ball and stop the run.”
Running the ball seems to be no problem for this team. It is stopping the run that is one of the more weighty concerns heading into the 2010 season.
Was enough done in the offseason to shore up this potential weak area? Without a proven impact player on the defensive line, how is this team going to keep from being run-over?
Maybe they have fixed this potential problem, and maybe they haven’t. At this point you have to lean towards the latter.
The only team stat in 2009 that was worse than their 22nd ranked run-defense was the Panther’s passing yards per game (27th). Clearly Marty Hurney and John Fox chose to give that aspect of their team a huge shot in the arm. With five of their ten total draft picks, the Panthers selected either a quarterback or a wide receiver. Their first three picks were all quarterbacks or receivers. The 48th pick in the draft (former Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen) does not figure to play at all in 2010.
Drafting the best available player is a philosophy that the better teams in the league have the luxury of using. When you have needs all over the place, and particularly on the defensive line, drafting a player who might not have a role for the foreseeable future (Clausen) is well, a huge short-term risk.
With Matt Moore firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, perhaps half of the battle to improve the passing game had already been won. The other half of the battle will hopefully be won by the receivers acquired in the draft, specifically Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards. With the best running back tandem in the league, and the dynamic additions to the receiving corp, the Panthers offense should have no problem putting points on the board this season.
The defense, on the other hand, is the wild-card in all of this. Stopping the run is the most basic, yet most important element to any defense. If the Panthers can’t improve their run defense, they will be more susceptible to the play-action pass, and will generally speaking be an easier unit to keep off balance.
Needless to say, if the Panther defense allows opposing offenses to dictate what plays work, the Panthers will not find themselves in many defensive struggles. That would not bode well when you consider the ball-control style that John Fox has always enjoyed.
Looking at the current roster, many of the familiar faces are gone, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. Guys like Nail Diggs and Damione Lewis have moved on. Number 90 has found a new home in the windy city, and run-support specialist Chris “the Hitman” Harris was traded to Chicago in what appears to be an effort to improve Chicago’s defense.
But what about the Panthers? What has been done to improve the defense? Who is going to make an impact on the interior of the defensive line? These questions, one way or another, will be answered before the 2010 season comes to a close.
Heading into the draft, many fans thought that this area of need (run-support) was going to be addressed first. Turns out, it was not addressed at all. Granted, two potential defensive studs were added in the draft in Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy. While both men look to contribute during their rookie seasons, neither player is going give the run-support a significant boost. In summation, the draft was a tell-tale sign that team management believed that the defensive lineman on the roster would be able to control the line of scrimmage. Not everyone is convinced.
The Panthers brass is exercising in faith. There are people inside the organization that will remind us that 2010 draft picks were used to address the defensive end and more importantly the defensive tackle positions. Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard were brought in from Kansas City and Cleveland, respectively, early in the 2009 season. The price for these defensive tackles was a couple of 2010 fifth-round picks. If these players turn into an effective starting tandem, then the Panthers got a couple of steals. If that is the case, then consider the concern about run defense a moot point.
With the many additions to the passing game, the defensive interior has been left very much the same. If we examine the defensive tackles on the roster, we find uncertainty on top of uncertainty. Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard played a combined seven games before both men ended their seasons on the injured reserve list. Corvey Irvin was drafted in the third-round of the 2009 draft. The Georgia product was on IR a couple weeks into training camp last season. Ed Johnson, who figures to be a valuable part of the rotation this year, has been out of football for almost two years. Nick Hayden, Derek Landri, and Andre Neblett round out the group, and that is about all we can say about them.
When Thomas Davis, one of the two best front seven players went down with another torn ACL in June, the run defense took yet another hit. The hidden gem in that injury is the emergence of MLB Dan Connor. He is one of the better run stopping linebackers on the team. He will have to prove his worth, as teams will undoubtedly look to pound the Panthers right up the gut to see how the defense responds.
What we’re hearing out of camp is that all of these young defensive players are excited to get their chance. We are hearing about how Ron Meeks expects everyone to run to the ball with reckless abandon. If we look back at Ron Meeks’ teams in Indianapolis, there were always active members in the secondary that played vital roles in the team’s run support. The same philosophy will be instituted in Carolina. Without all the beef up front, all 11 defensive players will have to contribute to stopping the run. Word is that with the team getting younger, the team has gotten considerably faster, albeit lighter, especially on defense.
Staying with the positives, Meeks’ defense has been known to allow some yards in between the 20 yard lines, and then will tighten up when the opponent reaches the red-zone. Although the run defense last season was poor, the Panthers finished fourth in pass defense, and therefore eighth in total defense. This type of defense, however, is a bit more reliant on forcing turnovers. If teams do not have to beat the Panthers through the air, because their run game is clicking, we should not expect to see the necessary amount of turnovers. Why pass when you can just pound the rock?
There were times last season when it was apparent that teams were exploiting the Panther’s soft run defense. The Jets and Dolphins both beat the Panthers with their run game. Neither of those teams have quarterbacks who strike fear in the heart of many defensive backs. The better teams will win with defense and a run game. The Panthers have half of that equation well in hand. You’ll have to stay tuned to see how the other half of that equation pans out.